Millions of people live in self-built housing on the peripheries of Lima, and they struggle with water scarcity. Sophia Grijalva (LSE) analysed the impact of fog catchers as a water harvesting technology in providing better access to this resource and improving collective life.
I grew up in Lima, Peru. When I was younger, the desert hills covered in little houses of wooden panel walls and corrugated iron roofs were treated as normal around me. When they were brought up in conversation, it was casually, matter-of-factly, often even by unsympathetic voices calling their inhabitants invaders. But the conditions these people live in make it evident that one would only ever live there out of necessity.
Slowly, I realised that those who live in these informal settlements are the most deprived in the city. They suffer from extreme poverty and build higher and higher up the rocky desert hills hoping to benefit from the city’s opportunities. It was always clear that Lima was a city of haves and have-nots. Still, I was particularly shocked when I found out that the water trucks used to provide water for human consumption in these settlements as a substitute for running water are the same kind that my rich neighbourhood used to irrigate parks. This, and hearing of the NGO Movimiento Peruanos Sin Agua’s fog catcher project, working to provide these communities with an alternative water source, prompted my dissertation topic.
This study gives insight into the reality of water insecurity suffered by millions living in self-built housing on the peripheries of Lima. It first explores the combination of desert conditions and water scarcity with poverty, informality, unstable physical terrain, and government bureaucracy that influence economic water scarcity in the city. Citizens disconnected from the centralised water system mostly rely on expensive private businesses such as water trucks for water provision. As a result, grassroots solutions from NGOs have appeared to find alternative solutions to the lack of running water.
My dissertation analyses the impact of 23 fog catchers installed as a water harvesting technology in 2020 in the informal settlement of El Trébol through a partnership between the NGO Movimiento Peruanos sin Agua and the beneficiaries. Through interviews with participants from the El Trébol community, the neighbouring community of Rinconada Alta, and the NGO founder, Abel Cruz, it evaluates the effectiveness of this technology in providing water security. It uses the framework of community-led water governance (CWG) to examine how community autonomy, parallel to the guidance of an NGO, can influence successful resource distribution to better match community needs over resource governance and management.
Water security and collective life
The two research questions the study poses are: How have the fog catchers affected water security in Pamplona Alta? How have the fog catchers impacted collective life in Pamplona Alta?
The research finds that the fog catchers successfully improve water security in El Trébol during the coldest seven to nine months of the year when thick fog shrouds the hills. Up to 10,000 litres can be collected and divided for free among the 60 people in the community. Up to 166 litres per capita per day! This quantity is above the World Health Organization’s estimate of 50-100 litres daily per person required to prevent health issues and meet basic human needs. The hardship of the pandemic allowed them to reallocate part of their water budget towards other family necessities and even direct extra water towards communal kitchens. However, due to seasonal limitations, the fog catchers do not function year-long; in the hottest summer months, there is no fog. The interviews reported the seasonal struggle of purchasing insufficient quantities of expensive water from trucks.
The paper uses Bhan et al. (2020) definition of collective life to discuss the fog catchers’ impact on the community’s social survival mechanisms to cope with inequality and no access to public services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the collective life framework, the study shows how community-led water governance can benefit from adapting existing collective life mechanisms into the community participation approach; in the case of the fog catchers, voluntary leadership positions and communal chores.
In El Trébol, Movimiento Peruanos Sin Agua promotes self-organisation and communal chores for the installation of the equipment, its maintenance and resource distribution, as the community has already established trust and solidarity-based governance systems among themselves. The NGO delivers sensitisation meetings to the elected board of directors within the community to advise how to manage and distribute the water equitably, integrating community self-help with NGO-community partnership.
The effect of the community-led water governance participatory approach on collective life is explored further through interviews with members of the olla común or communal kitchen. Ollas comunes, soup kitchens voluntarily run by women who collect donations and cook for them, are survival mechanisms used in communities across Latin America as a social safety net in times of destitution. This aspect is particularly relevant in the emerging post-COVID-19 Lima. Community-led governance means that when there is fog, water harvested from it is allocated to the kitchens. This reduces the burden of looking for donations or spending their household budget, as well as preventing these women from the unpaid labour and dangerous physical work of carrying heavy water containers up an unstable hill.
The study establishes as its central conclusion that the fog catchers improve water security in El Trébol by providing a safe and free supply of potable water in winter. Without it, most of the community would not be able to access the World Health Organization’s minimum requirement for a healthy life. Additionally, the project supports and works with collective life mechanisms to promote community ownership over the resource and equitable allocation.
Without this tool, most of the community would not be able to access the WHO’s minimum requirement of water for a healthy life.
My dissertation highlights evidence about the fog catchers’ seasonal limitations and warrants a critique of government inaction rather than of the technology itself. As I argue, even tailored socio-technological fixes from civil society do not have the funding for solutions that can replace the need for formalisation and public services to give the residents of these settlements water security equal to that running water provides. But this project should be seen not as the whole solution to water insecurity or to the complex imbalance of social relations behind water scarcity in Pamplona Alta, but rather an attempt by an NGO to improve the health, comfort, livelihoods, and independence of a community as much as possible, or as far as their technology and induction of community-based water governance allow them.
Ultimately, I claim that if fog catchers aim to further their provision of water security while communities await formalisation, the project would ideally get government support and a community-state partnership. Through this partnership, civil society and the state should prepare contingency plans for the summer months, such as subsidised water from Sedapal (a state water provider) trucks.
A forgotten community
The main takeaway from this piece is that we cannot just wait around for the formalisation of millions of dwellers’ housing in Lima when casual corruption and bureaucracy seemingly slow most state projects in Peru. Support from civil society projects is essential- without them, we would be accepting these people living in such extreme poverty and water insecurity for possibly even decades to come. The Peruvian government has shown no rush to build the necessary infrastructure on these desert hills, as expressed by participants at the end of the analysis. These people feel forgotten and led on by politicians’ constant empty promises.
Help from civil society is essential to their health, comfort and dignity. It is essential to assist communities with a device they can work with to access to a basic resource while awaiting the unforeseeable date of formalisation. Of course, this should be done in parallel with placing pressure on the administrations to face the issue of poverty and informality. Thus, I suggest the state collaborate with the NGOs fog catcher projects and the communities they provide to. These NGOs are established and effective in improving the quality of life and water security of the beneficiaries. If the state works with them, it may make up for the delay in meeting its duty of provision to the urban poor.
• The views expressed here are of the author rather than the Centre or the LSE
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• This post was originally published in the Latin American Geographies UK blog
• Sophia Grijalva received the 2022 Latin American Geographies Research Group (LAGRG) Undergraduate Dissertation Prize for the dissertation ‘An analysis of how ‘fog catchers’ in Pamplona Alta, Peru have affected water security and collective life’. This post introduces that dissertation.
• Banner image: Houses in the hills of Peru / Jean Pierre Pinochet (Shutterstock)